Why the Belmont Blue Rehab Includes a Futuristic Canopy but No Elevators

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Rendering of the redesigned Belmont Blue Line station, including its Jetsons-like canopy.

Early this month the city announced upgrades the Blue Line’s Belmont stop that will cost up to $15 million. The improvements to the station, which opened in 1970 and was originally designed by Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, include several cosmetic changes, including a space-age-looking weather canopy. However, many residents are scratching their heads about why the rehab won’t include the addition of elevators to make the stations compliant with the Americans With Disabilities act.

The project, which is slated to begin next year, is part of the CTA’s Your New Blue initiative, which includes makeovers to several stations along the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch, as well as track improvements. Residents have previously complained about the fact that many of the station redesigns don’t include elevators, and the CTA has said they plan to make all stations ADA compliant sometime in the future.

The planned improvements include a community gateway for the street-level entrance to the Belmont subway station and improvements to a safer, more comfortable environment for pedestrians. Importantly, the CTA plans to permanently add prepaid bus boarding to the station, a timesaving feature the agency has been testing since this summer on westbound buses during evening rush hours.

Attendants with portable fare card readers have customers scan their cards and wait in a fenced in bullpen. When buses arrive the employees direct the riders to board through both the front and rear doors. The CTA didn’t provide additional details on how the permanent prepaid boarding system would work.

But spokesman Jeff Tolman said the Belmont test, as well as a similar pilot that recently launched at the Loop Link’s Madison/Dearborn station, seem to be going smoothly. “Anecdotally, customers have responded generally positively to both pilots and they have helped reduce boarding times,” he said.

The large, skeletal canopy, designed by the Chicago architecture firm Ross Barney Architects, will provide additional weather protection. It’s more evidence that the city has a “When in doubt go with something Santiago Calatrava-esque” design philosophy. See also the Loop Link and Union Station Transit Center bus shelters, as well as the upcoming Washington-Wabash ‘L’ station – all of them are vaguely reminiscent of dinosaur ribs.

“Projects like this bring notable architecture and design that celebrates and complements the character of our communities, enhance our neighborhoods and bring economic and cultural opportunities to residents and businesses,” said Mayor Emanuel in a statement.

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CTA customers waiting in the prepaid boarding bullpen. Photo: John Greenfield

I asked the CTA why elevators weren’t included as part of the project. Spokeswoman Tammy Chase responded that the agency’s recently announced its All Stations Accessibility Program to add elevators and other elements to make train stops usable for wheelchair users and other with mobility challenges within the next 20 years.

“Adding elevators to subway stations present additional engineering challenges that we’ll look at as part of our ASAP plan,” Chase said via email. “One of the biggest challenges in making all rail stations ADA compliant are the physical constraints posed by our decades-old rail infrastructure. Many stations and structures were constructed on limited footprints and are often in close proximity to existing buildings and other infrastructure.”

Chase said these constraints make expansion to accommodate elevators difficult and expensive in many cases. Also, she added, building into subways requires a new structural opening plus many other alterations and is often much more expensive than adding an elevator above ground.

“Making an existing station ADA compliant sometimes requires more than just the addition of an elevator,” she wrote. “Depending on the layout of a station, multiple elevators would be required and platforms would also need to be widened/lengthened among other things.”

Chase added that the CTA selected the near-term improvements at Belmont because it’s a high-ridership station, with nearly 1.8 million entries in 2015, the sixth highest on the O’Hare branch, and because new development and growth in the neighborhood. “This project will bring improvements more quickly, including providing better shelter, better communication via a new PA system and transit tracker signs, plus more windbreaks and people heaters,” she said.

Chase noted that several downtown stations were recently made ADA accessible, including Grand/State, Chicago/State, and Clark/Division. However, she added that making the Belmont station fully accessible is estimated to cost between $70 million and $90 million, several times more than the planned project.

It’s somewhat understandable that the agency is choosing to make short-term improvements to the Belmont stop now instead of waiting until another $45-75 million in funding becomes available. Still, it’s a shame that residents with disabilities may have to wait as long as two decades until they gain access to a facility that’s supposed to serve all Chicagoans.

  • what_eva

    Santiago, not Sergio, Calatrava.

    I think there’s a geometry issue at Belmont, as the platform is between the tracks underneath Kimball. It is *not* under the station house.

  • DrMedicine

    Depending on the direction of the wind, won’t that roof just catch the wind and direct it straight down the side of the building/doors? That could be a real problem especially in winter.

  • UptownArtsCouncil

    It seems like the Street to mezzanine level elevator wouldn’t be a challenge as as much as the mezz. to platform would be. The station is at very end of the platform.

  • “Projects like this bring notable architecture and design that celebrates and complements the character of our communities, enhance our neighborhoods and bring economic and cultural opportunities to residents and businesses,” said Mayor Emanuel in a statement. So how is that making it possible for a person in a wheel chair to use public transportation in that neighborhood? What about their opportunities? A shame indeed.

  • Anne A

    It’s a cool looking design, but I wonder how practical it will be on days with rain or snow combined with high winds.

  • Pat

    I agree, if they don’t execute the prepaid system thoroughly. The fact that they presented a rendering that doesn’t have true prepaid boarding is a red flag for me.

    In the rendering, there is a 10ish ft space between the door and bus. If this was true prepaid boarding, people should be able to wait inside in the secure area and the bus should pull up right up to the correctly aligned doors.

  • Carter O’Brien

    There’s nothing wrong with this so much as the opportunity cost seems extreme given the price tag.

    As a multi-thousand time user of this stop, this is literally the last thing it needs. An elevator or at least escalator is obvious (I routinely see a woman with a cane struggle to get down those stairs, it is literally painful to watch). But additionally:

    1. There is already cover there.

    2. Nobody is waiting for the bus where the new structure fans out
    3. This does not address the “Lake Belmont” situation that plagues pedestrians coming from the east.
    4. Where is the water this captures actually going?
    5. This focus on boarding time is a solution in search of a problem. In the Loop, sure. At this location the “bus box” on Kimball being blocked and the bad design of having the westbound 77 make a tight turnaround in heavy traffic is what screws up the bus schedule.
    6. Buses being bunched in groups of 2, 3 or 4 before they get anywhere near the L station are also what screw up the bus schedule.
    7. Addressing the safety of people/cyclists crossing the streets at the intersection – it is horrible – is more important.

    If they are adding some kind of bioswale that will help. And how about incorporating photovoltaic panels and making this truly functional?

    But long term, modernize the stop, add a second ADA entrance and get the westbound 77 out of there altogether.

  • PP

    Elevators and ADA accessibility is what is necessary for this stop not “the future” of architecture best left in the Jetsons.

  • Carter O’Brien

    …if Rosie the robot does the pre-paid boarding I may reconsider my position.

  • david vartanoff

    I would hope someone sues CTA over this. Aside from the non necessity of a “starchitect” roof, spending ANY funding on this sort of fluff w/o addressing the ADA issue merits a Title VI disparate impact complaint. Perhaps Ms. Chase should practice using a wheelchair for a week.

  • Typo fixed.

  • Yes, this.

    The CTA is not working on the right projects.
    A waste of money like IDOT was working on the Illiana, another bad project.

    This does nothing to improve service, but it may catch the eye of a motorist driving inbound on the Kennedy Expressway.

  • You hit every problem with this station.
    And that $15 million changes none of this.

    No bus should be making two left turns to get to a station.

    My long-term idea for this station is:
    1. Keep the westbound bus in the street.
    2. Build a tunnel from westbound side of Belmont to the station. Turn the bus bay into a landscaped area.
    3. Build an elevator
    4. Build a 40 unit residence atop the station.

  • skelter weeks

    If you have space for stairs, you have space for escalators. And escalators can be made wheelchair accessible. They do it in Japan.
    http://www.japan-accessible.com/transport/train/escalator/escalator.htm

  • Carter O’Brien

    I’ll see you the eminent domain purchasing of the awful plaza next door and raise! Just imagine what they could do…

  • CTA is being deliberately vague. Belmont won’t get elevators this rehab for the same reason the north side Red Line didn’t get them during the recent platform rebuilds. Federal law doesn’t allow piecemeal ADA improvements. You either have to improve an entire station complex for ADA, or not put in any ADA improvements at all. It’s basically a “get out of elevator construction free” card, and it hampers every rail transit system in the nation.

  • …or how about a nice city community center with a public mental health clinic in it, and a beautiful fountain for the water? And, of course, a Starbucks!

  • !!!

  • No gimps allowed here!

  • It’s only a challenge to CTA’s mentality! I am not in a wheelchair and I need an elevator so I don’t fall going up and down stairs. I’ll wager there are many more like me.

  • Oh, there are so many issues! Scrap this plan and use this money for access to all!

  • Buster

    My neighbor sued a Chicago public school and forced them to install an elevator for his child, the only one in the school who needed it. 1 person, 1 lawsuit, 1 elevator.

  • My kid’s school doesn’t have an elevator (1900 building), and the principal would really like to have one, but there is literally no path within CPS to seek out capital improvements like this (even safety related ones, much less enhancements to come into compliance with national regulations).

    I wish there were. I even wish I knew somewhere we could write a grant to that would aid in funding these kinds of ADA-for-public-buildings projects.

  • ardecila

    Such a system would not meet American ADA/UFAS regulations. Depending on your ideology, you will either think this is a good thing that keeps disabled Americans safer than their Japanese counterparts, or you will think this is an example of a poorly-written, obsolete and myopic law. We report, you decide.

  • Deni

    Odd statement about the need to widen/lengthen platforms to put in an elevator. Have they ever widened or lengthened any platforms to install elevators in any subway station they are in now? Certainly never widened as that would require a major construction project to widen the tunnel. And don’t Belmont and Logan Square have the longest and widest platforms of any subway station in the system?

  • skelter weeks

    I’m sure it the only reason it doesn’t meet regulations is that they never considered it.
    And it’s as safe as any bus wheelchair lift (it’s not an ordinary escalator).

    We have escalators for shopping carts (at Target), but none for people in wheelchairs. Why?

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

  • neroden

    Um, if they’re spending $15 million, they’re required to spend up to $3 million (20%) on ADA access. That’s enough to put in one elevator.

  • neroden

    Yeah, this deserves an immediate lawsuit.

    The only station which could get away with this sort of thing was the “Apple” (North/Clybourn) station because of the 100% private funding source, which evaded a lot of the rules.

    This, by contrast, is government money. Full Architectural Barriers Act rules apply, which are much stronger.

  • JacobEPeters

    that seems to be a general comment about what kind of changes would be needed “depending on the layout of a station”. Certainly wider platforms were needed on many parts of the Brown Line to accommodate wheelchairs. Such an issue at Damen on the Blue Line would likely require demolition of at least part of the back of Estelle’s.

    In terms of the Belmont Blue Line station, as you point out they would not need to lengthen or widen platforms. They would probably need to reconfigure the underground portion of the station in a way similar to the southern Logan Square Blue Line station fare payment area. This might require 2 elevators since the Blue Line platform is underneath Kimball, and that is where costs start to escalate.

  • Deni

    I was commenting specifically on subway stations, not elevated. Every subway station with an elevator had it put in without widening or lengthening platforms, as far as I know. Elevated stops have different issues.

  • JacobEPeters

    I could tell. I was pointing out that Tammy Chase was referring to all stations both elevated and subway. There is no instance of a subway station platform being widened in Chicago, and one or two could theoretically be lengthened, but it would require moving some platform level functions to the mezzanine.

  • neroden

    This isn’t actually how the ADA law is written.

    “Modification” is the trigger. If you alter any section of the station, you are required to make the section you modified accessible. There is an additional rule that you have to attempt to make the pathway to get on and off the trains accessible before doing anything else.

    Which means this proposal, building a giant canopy with no elevators, is illegal.

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